6 Facts You Need to Know about Wood Turtles – and How to Protect Them: Species at Risk Series
We’re kicking off 2022 with another deep dive into a species at risk in the Ottawa Valley.
Need a refresher on the different categories of a species being at risk and what each one means? Read our first blog in the series.
This month, we’re focusing on wood turtles.
This reptile’s scientific name is Glyptemys insculpta.
The wood turtle is listed as threatened on a federal level, meaning across Canada as a whole it isn’t considered endangered but will likely become so if urgent steps aren’t taken to protect its habitat or stop threats it faces.
However, the wood turtle is listed as endangered in Ontario, meaning that in the province this species does face imminent extinction or extirpation. It is also listed as vulnerable in Quebec.
What do they look like?
The wood turtle is a medium-sized freshwater turtle. They grow to about 20-25cm long in adulthood, around the age of 20.
This turtle has a unique feature: it doesn’t shed sections of their shells – known as their scutes – like other Ottawa Valley turtles.
Wood turtles’ scutes are greyish-brown, sometimes with yellow markings. Each individual scute has pyramidal lines, making it look like each section of the wood turtle’s shell is made up of small pyramids. Because they don’t shed sections of their shells, wood turtles develop a rugged appearance as they age, often compared to the look of wood.
Wood turtles’ skin is brown, but their legs, neck, and chin have an orange or brick-red colouring, earning this species the nickname “Old Red Leg.”
How many are in Canada?
The wood turtle population across Canada is estimated to be somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 adult turtles.
The Canadian government estimates local populations to be much smaller, with rarely more than 100 turtles within one area.
Wood turtles can be found in wooded streams and rivers in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.
How long do they live for?
Wood turtles are considered a long-lived reptile, with some living into their 30s in the wild and into their 50s in captivity.
What do they eat?
Wood turtles are omnivores and eat a variety of berries, plants, insects, small frogs, snails, and more.
They’re known for stomping their feet on the ground to replicate rainfall, drawing earthworms above ground for a snack.
How old are wood turtles when they start breeding?
This semi-aquatic reptile can take approximately 17 years before it becomes of breeding age.
This is one contributing factor to the wood turtle’s inclusion on Canada’s species at risk listing. They may be killed or collected before reaching an appropriate breeding age, therefore reducing their population numbers.
What threats do wood turtles face?
Wood turtles face a number of threats, including being illegally collected as pets. This species of turtle isn’t aggressive towards people, so they’re often collected and sold into the pet trade. This causes negative repercussions for their habitat and population numbers.
Additional threats include their habitats being destroyed by residential and commercial development, water pollution, and forestry and agricultural practices.
Additionally, a major threat to this species is road mortality. Road networks through or near wood turtle habitat cause fatalities for this at-risk species. Off-road vehicles crossing through their habitat also pose a major threat.
What is CPAWS-OV doing to protect wood turtles?
CPAWS-OV and CREDDO have been collaborating since last spring on a project to protect wood turtle habitat, a species listed as vulnerable in Quebec and present in the Noire and Coulonge river territory.
In the fall, our team went in the field to document threats around critical habitats in our study area with a drone. To reduce the risk of road mortality and to prevent the decline of turtle populations, we plan to install turtle crossing signs around hotspots where conservation efforts are increasingly needed.
Want to learn more about our project and how we plan to protect wood turtles in Southwestern Quebec? Register for our free CPAWS Café, happening January 24.
What can you do to help?
Don’t keep this species as a pet. This jeopardizes their future and their homes, and they should experience their natural habitat.
Watch for wood turtles on the road, particularly from May to October.
You can also donate to help us protect their habitat in the Noire and Coulonge watersheds.